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LRT will motivate us to ditch cars: HSR chief

Light rail transit will transform the city's transit network, attract new riders and be the critical component that gets people out of their cars.

By Meredith Macleod

Published in the Hamilton Spectator on Feb 2, 2010

Does Hamilton have the ridership to justify light rail transit?

There are plenty of people in this city who think the answer is no.

In letters to this paper, blog posts and opinion surveys, they say not enough people want or need to go downtown and that Hamiltonians are too attached to their cars.

Critics point out that most cities with successful light rail have much larger populations than Hamilton.

Even Don Hull, director of the Hamilton Street Railway, says based on sheer numbers alone, Hamilton probably doesn't cut it.

But he says that's only part of the equation.

Present-day transit ridership doesn't account for changes coming down the road that will push people out of their cars: increasing congestion, growing concern about pollution and climate change, and the inevitability of soaring gas prices.

Light rail transit will transform the city's transit network, attract new riders and be the critical component that gets people out of their cars, Hull says.

And it brings investment and tax dollars to struggling neighbourhoods, he adds.

"More than population or density or ridership, the key to whether LRT is successful and viable is the support of all three levels of government."

The B-Line from Eastgate Square to McMaster University -- the city's proposed corridor for a light rail line -- affects four of the HSR's major routes, Hull says.

Collectively, they account for about 50 per cent of the system's riders.

That adds up to 25,000 to 30,000 trips a day, half or more in peak periods.

Hull says that's not far off the usage that would be hoped for on an LRT line. In fact, a consultants' report into the economics of LRT in Hamilton projected the system would need about 34,000 riders a weekday (8.9 million a year) to break even on its operational costs.

Hull says many cities, including Portland, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Denver, quickly exceeded ridership forecasts.

Hamilton is unique in that the ridership is already there, it just has to be shifted from bus to rail. Most North American systems, he says, run on an entirely new line and have to build from nothing.

That's a big advantage, says Antonio Paez, an associate geography and earth sciences professor at McMaster, who specializes in transportation.

"There is only the potential to gain. It's a relatively low-risk transition in that corridor."

The objective is to make transit the most attractive option for getting around, says Paez. Choosing to run rail lines along the busiest routes in the city -- King and Main -- and cut into, or eliminate, car lanes will achieve just that.

"The goal is to make traffic less problematic for those who choose transit but not necessarily better for those who don't choose it."

Once B-Line buses are replaced by light rail, Hull hopes capacity can be boosted in other areas of the city.

In day peak periods, HSR is having trouble meeting demand on many routes, he says.

Another important element is the city's official plan, which aims to see 100 transit trips per year per capita by 2030. That number now sits at 48 and the target simply can't be reached without LRT, says Hull.

The beauty of choosing the B-Line for the first leg of an overhaul of the city's transit system is that about 80 per cent of routes already intersect with the corridor.

"Everything off the Mountain as well as the North End and Bayfront routes meet up with King. It would be virtually an entirely intersecting system.

"That's very desirable."

Metrolinx has identified two rapid transit corridors in Hamilton to be developed in the first 15 years -- the east-west line that's on the table, and north-south on James Street from the airport to the waterfront.

Three other routes -- Eastgate to the Ancaster business park, the Centre Mall to the Meadowlands and downtown Hamilton to Waterdown -- are part of a 25-year vision.

Metrolinx has made no commitment to whether Hamilton will receive light rail or bus rapid transit.

A recommendation on the B-Line corridor is expected Feb. 19.